My bedtime reading last night was Anu Partanen's article on "the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland." Partanen's assessment, relying heavily on Finnish education official and author Pasi Sahlberg, points out that almost everything the Finns have done recently to reform their education system is the opposite of what Governor Dennis Daugaard and other "reformers" in South Dakota and the U.S. propose. Consider:
- There are no private schools in Finland, not even private universities. All those smart kids and Ph.D.'s in Finland graduated from public schools.
- Finland has no standardized tests. Teachers design their own tests, and report cards reflect local, individualized grading.
- Teacher education programs are highly selective.
- Teachers must have a master's degree.
- There are no complicated accountability programs; teachers and administrators are given prestige, pay, and high responsibility. They pretty much police their own profession.
Partanen's overall thesis will make Rand-y Republicans writhe: Finland excels in education because it focuses on equity, not excellence:
...while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation [Anu Partanen, "What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland's School Success," The Atlantic, 2011.12.29].
Thank you, ma'am, may I please have another?
Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.
In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity [Partanen, 2011.12.29].
To fix South Dakota's schools, Governor Dennis Daugaard wants to impose more standardized tests to measure student progress. Finland says Governor Daugaard is wrong.
Governor Daugaard wants to drill administrators on a centralized evaluation measure for all teachers. Finland says he's wrong.
Governor Daugaard wants to hand out bonuses to only a few of the best teachers and foster competition among teachers. Finland says he's wrong.
Governor Daugaard wants to eliminate tenure, one of the few meager acknowledgments of professional status of teachers. Finland says he's wrong.
Governor Daugaard is not proposing any policy to make teacher certification more rigorous, to grant teachers and administrators more autonomy, to makes schools healthier or safer, or to provide more equity for students and teachers across South Dakota. Finland says that without those policies, Governor Daugaard's efforts to improve our schools will fail.